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Turning Radical Politics into a Spectacle

You should not expect discussions in the mainstream media (MSM) to get you one iota closer to understanding the real world. Seasoned Communists know this so well, that to them the content of the mainstream media is nothing but a circus-act of cliches and aphorisms. Despite this, the MSM is still a useful resource for Communists. Frequently national newspapers can serve as platforms for statements of intent by the ruling class. The MSM can in this way serve as an important way to coordinate the affairs of the capitalist class.

But the MSM is most often involved in pointing out activities, cultures, and groups of people as a spectacle. The sole purpose for doing this is to reaffirm the ideological convictions of the target audience of the MSM. This target audience is usually the reasonably wealthy petit-bourgeoisie and bourgoisie. Sometimes this is done for ridicule, or a “beat up” (sustained ideological attack). At other times the MSM media points out novel phenomena for the purpose of constructing a “cautionary tale”.

This is exactly what the Irish journalist Angela Nagle does in her two articles “What the Alt-right is really all about” (6 January 2017) in The Irish Times, and “The Scourge of Self-Flagellating Politics” (19 January 2017) in Current Affairs.

In this blog post I’d like to point out where Nagle went wrong in these two news articles. I’d also like to suggest some corrections about what she could have done in order to accurately picture the reality of the topic she was discussing, and give some constructive advice about what earnest readers should do to improve the situation she was lamenting.

Introducing Novel Movements to the Bourgeoisie

Nagle’s topics of interest in these two pieces are liberal identity politics, and the rise of white supremacism and neo-Nazism into mainstream political discourse. The function of these two articles is not to discuss the material causes for either of these political ideologies, or to explain their inner tendencies or essential characteristics. Her purpose was to construct a “cautionary tale” about extremism for the audience of the mainstream media. The (petit-) bourgeoisie has until the popularity of Trump had very little to do with identity politics or outright white supremacism, and is now taking a sudden interest in these two social phenomena as they become more prominent, and become more important in order to make sense of the political landscape of Western countries.

The first thing Nagle attempts to achieve in either of these articles is therefore an introduction for the reader to these two social movements. Nagle remarks that

“explaining” the Alt-right’ to a general audience will always make you sound like an overwhelmed grandparent trying to figure out how to work the internet, in part because of their slippery use of irony.

Nagle is accurate in her depiction of the alt-right as neo-Nazis and white supremacists partly because the ideological commitments of this social movement are easily intelligible to middle class and ruling class audiences. Nagle is not really interested in analysing the alt-right in either of these pieces. The “cautionary tale” she is interested in telling is constructed chiefly out of discussing the “call-out” and “privilege checking” culture of liberal identity politics. It is this characterisation of privilege checking culture that I want to discuss.

The Puritanism of Radical Politics

Nagle spills a lot of ink in her 19 January article on the privilege checking and call-out culture of radical activism. She draws the same link that Mark Fisher does in “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle” between call-out culture, Nietzsche and Christian confessionalism. Call-out culture is depicted as an insane and irrational practice that develops out of activism that organises itself into cult-like groups.

Apparently the alt-right feeds off of cult-out culture, and the two social movements are intertwined and mutually self-sustaining. Practitioners of identity politics will self-flagellate and accuse themselves of being corrupted by oppressive components of their identity. Nagle ultimately concludes that this culture is mostly virtue signalling, although she doesn’t name the concept explicitly. Neo-Nazis and other members of the alt-right will then abuse and harass these practitioners of identity politics online for corrupting Western culture and the white way of life.

The ultimate message the reader is meant to take away from these two articles is “isn’t this horrendous? Have people really lost their minds?”

Nagle’s work touches on an oblique truth about liberal identity politics as a movement–it can at the worst of times devolve into public shaming and crippling guilt complexes. But nowhere does Nagle deal with the material conditions that give rise to liberal identity politics. Furthermore Nagle doesn’t bother to offer up any sort of suggestion as to how to improve the situation for this layer of radical activism.

Orwell: Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun

Well I’d like to put forward a suggestion about what radical activists can do to prevent their organisations from devolving into cults, and becoming centres of shaming and confessionalism. I’m not going to critique or analyse identity politics. What I am about to say applies as much to left-liberal practitioners of identity politics as it does Communists.

Both identity politics and Communism promise in their common-sense guise a utopian reality free from pain and suffering. For this reason, radical activists, be they Communists or otherwise, tend to dwell quite a lot on the current suffering of today’s oppressed peoples. All humour becomes extinguished from branch meetings and activist spaces because no example of happiness currently existing in the world can match up to the supposed perfection of the utopia their movement is attempting to bring about.

Orwell wrote about this under a pseudonym in his opinion piece “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun” for the Tribune in 1943. Orwell says radicals are wrong to picture a future state of universal non-oppression as one of perfect happiness. He argues that humans, by their nature, can only understand goodness or badness in terms of contrast, and so it is actually futile to imagine some perfect future society as free from all unhappiness. Much of his time is spent  giving examples of how it has been impossible for anyone to imagine a future utopia in any kind of detail.

I would like to suggest that the confessionalism, guilt complexes, and abusive cult-like behaviour of much of the radical left, be they spaces where identity politics are practiced or not, is due to the unhealthy pictures of utopian non-oppressive societies that they picture. This is not the same as accusing these spaces or activists as being “Utopian”. The “utopia” that we should be imagining, and one that we can very definitely prefigure right now, is one of solidarity and comradeship. When we promise ourselves a society free from oppression, we should not be promising ourselves a society which is free from unhappiness.

This kind of prefigurative politics would be more healthy in dealing with the imperfect consciousness of our fellow comrades. One of my comrades describes this culture of solidarity as one of “accountability”. When we “fuck up”, we should do so knowing we are still in solidarity in our comrades, and that criticism from our comrade-peers comes from a place of trust. This is, however, conditional on being “accountable”: recognising and owning up to our faults, and being transparent.

Finally, I think it is important that all radical activist spaces should have policies for dealing with (sexual) assault, harassment, and other serious wrongs that members of spaces are known to commit. Too often serious accusations of misogyny and sexism is explained away as “slander” put down to identity politics call-out culture. I think if we fostered cultures of comradeship and solidarity during normal times, it would make dealing with serious issues less divisive and easy to twist and spin.

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